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Classical 101

Kono Michi and Her Deathbed Haikus

This morning I auditioned a new CD by an artist I'd never heard of. Her name is Kono Michi and the name of her CD is 9 Death Haiku. I was uncertain why this recording had been sent to the station, for at first glance it doesn't look like your typical classical recording. But the album title fascinated me. From the moment the music started, my ears perked up, and I found myself on a most unexpected musical journey. Each song - there are nine total - is set to a different haiku poem by a Japanese Buddhist monk who died in the 18th or 19th century. Written, recorded and produced by Kono Michi for voice, string quartet, upright bass and drums, these death songs reflect on humankind's journey out of this world, in the final moments of living and dying. Kono Michi's classical background reveals itself in bits and pieces as you move from track to track. ("I Borrow Moonlight" is one of my favorites.) Her style, at least to my ears, is a blending of HER world and experiences as a young modern woman living in Brooklyn  (For example, CD Baby lists her in their "Pop Underground" and "Classical Avant-Garde" genres.) I must confess I was a bit taken aback when I learned "Kono Michi is the alter ego of California-raised Juilliard graduate Michi Wiancko, a professional violinist who made her solo debut with the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, has appeared in Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Sydney Opera House, Library of Congress, and regularly tours internationally." Here's a recent review of 9 Death Haiku: Kono Michi is a New York-based concert violinist and erstwhile Silk Road Ensemble collaborator, and has come up with this intriguing and exquisitely beautiful setting of Japanese deathbed haikus. If you listen to this wanting to hear violin music, you might be disappointed. True, Michi's pedigree on the instrument is manifest, with a dexterity and refined expression, whether in the crystalline melody and pulsing accompaniment of Vanish or the gossamer-light pizzicato of Cherry Blossoms. But these songs are about the whole package. The spare, open-ended lyrics, peaceful and occasionally darkly tinged, demand subtlety, and Michi delivers. Her voice is gently honeyed, with a Bjork-like quirkiness that tempers the languid, summertime ambiance of the sound. And around the succinct text, she crafts precise, imaginative textures, with layered violin lines and delicate percussion, expanded by touches of reverb that do not tarnish the solo violin on top. Michi draws on Gershwin, Weill, impressionism and Japanese traditional music within a popular format - a bold venture that occasionally jars as so many styles rub up against each other, threatening to overpower the words. Then again, the variety of moods and range of musical allusions explore the acres of unspoken meaning that each haiku offers from a number of angles. And overall, the album coheres into a distinctive sound that reflects Michi's personal blend of cultural influences (she was born to Japanese and Polish-American parents). This is a great advert for music that breaks through the pop-classical barrier. The Strad, June 2009 (PDF, 39.5 K) Give her a listen. This girl is going places. I hope someday it will be here in Columbus.